We must rebuild nature’s defenses at the frontlines of climate change

By Alejandro Litovsky, Chief Executive, Earth Security Group (UK)

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Coastal ecosystems are the first line of defense against climate disasters. They soak up carbon dioxide at an extraordinary speed, and provide shelter and food for over 120 million vulnerable people in coastal communities. But, from mangrove forests to coral reefs, they are being pushed to the brink of collapse. Reversing this trend and making the Earth more resilient to climate change are tasks where philanthropists can achieve a planet-wide impact.

Mangrove forests are among the most undervalued and threatened ecosystems on Earth. But they are also among the world’s most powerful natural solutions for carbon sequestration and climate adaptation.

Two years ago, the leader of a coastal conservation project in the Philippines told me, “Think of the value of mangroves as a holy trinity – carbon sequestration, climate protection and local development." Their roots can store vast amounts of carbon dioxide underwater (hence the term ‘blue carbon’) at an astonishing speed. In fact, they can absorb up to four or five times more carbon dioxide than land-based tropical forests, and 40% faster. However, rapid mangrove deforestation rates are resulting in an estimated one billion tons of CO2 being released annually.

Mangroves protect against storms, sea level rises and coastal erosion. They can slow down the force of a tidal wave from a tsunami by up to 80%. An engineering firm has also found that mangroves and coral reefs are 50 times more cost-effective than building a cement seawall as defense.

For local development, mangroves provide important nursery grounds for many commercial fish. They are a habitat for over 3,000 fish species. However, for all their value, we have lost half of all mangrove forests in the last 50 years. Southeast Asia is a major hotspot due to the rapid expansion of shrimp farming, where project investments are converting mangroves into aquaculture ponds. Other drivers are agriculture, coastal real-estate development (think Florida), infrastructure projects, and local use of wood for fuel and construction.

In our race against climate change, mangroves offer an immediate and attractive opportunity. However, it is not clear how to sustain such largely grant and government-funded restoration projects amid looming economic pressures. Only a handful of philanthropic foundations focus on mangrove and coastal ecosystem conservation projects.

While one challenge is to increase funding for conservation projects, a more important one is to increase their scale – taking what works locally and adapting it to impact the planet. Philanthropists can do three things to increase the scale of these solutions:

1.Plan for impact on a continental scale

In Senegal, the NGO Océanium and the company Danone partnered in 2009 to launch one of the world’s largest mangrove regeneration projects. So far, the project has replanted 10,000 hectares with 79 million mangrove trees, mobilizing 350 local villages and 100,000 people. The new trees will store 500,000 tons of carbon over the project’s 20 years. Danone, and other companies investing through the Livelihood Fund, can use this to reduce their global carbon footprint while achieving a significant impact locally.

Philanthropists can help take these approaches to a continental scale. For example, they might fund larger partnerships where corporate-facing platforms, such as the Livelihoods Funds, standard-setting NGOs, and regional economic agencies or development banks, work together to expand these models across a wider coastline and neighboring countries.

2. Scaling blue carbon finance

Philanthropists are already experimenting with new financial models to invest in blue carbon. For example, the Climate Finance Lab, pools philanthropic funding to enable the piloting of early-stage financing concepts. These prototypes include the Restoration Insurance Service Company (RISCO), led by Conservation International to mobilise insurance companies to invest in mangrove restoration; and the Blue Carbon Resilience Credit, developed by The Nature Conservancy, to enable corporations to invest in coastal regeneration in exchange for carbon credits. Philanthropists interested in financial markets as a force for change can help these models become more central to the climate investment plans of investors and companies. Creating pathways to scale these models will require strategic partnerships with a wider pool of financial intermediaries and companies.

3. Creating blueprints for future coastal cities

Imagine a future where investments in coastal infrastructure, construction, real estate, agriculture and aquaculture projects accounted for the value of ecosystem services in their designs. Regenerating mangrove forests and other ecosystems would enable future cities to rely on natural carbon sequestration, smarter climate adaptation, and local development based on healthy ecosystems.

However, this will require a fundamental shift that unites architects, urban planners, municipality mayors, project developers and investors in working together on new urban development concepts. Philanthropists have a critical role to play in kick-starting this movement, supporting pilots, partnerships, education and exhibitions, and disseminating blueprints that coastal cities worldwide can replicate.